“African Americans are no different when it comes to prevalence of mental health conditions when compared to the rest of the population. However, your concerns or experiences and how you understand and cope with these conditions may be different.” NAMI: National Alliance on Mental Illness
Although African Americans have the same prevalence of mental health conditions often times they can become more severe because of a lack of treatment. The differences in obtaining treatment can be explained by many factors. Major depression, Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Suicide (among young African American men), and Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are four mental health illnesses common among the African American community. Some of the risk factors for developing these conditions are heightened by African Americans’ risk of being exposed to violence and homelessness.
Barriers that stand in the way of African Americans getting treatment for mental health conditions include a lack of information and awareness of the mental illnesses, turning to faith instead of mental health professionals, and inequality of care. There is a lack of understanding and misinformation in the African American community about mental health because mental health is not discussed and is stigmatized as being a personal weakness.
The symptoms and signs of mental illness can be expressed differently in African Americans as well. For example, depression may be described as “the blues” or something to “snap out of.” This can make it more difficult for African Americans to recognize the symptoms, as well as for the doctors to recognize the symptoms if they are not practicing with cultural competence. If you don’t recognize the symptoms then a person is less likely to seek out care.
Faith and spirituality is a great source of strength and support in the African American community. However sometimes faith and spirituality cannot replace therapeutic treatment that may be necessary. With that said, faith and spirituality can have a significant role in recovery and can be apart of a treatment plan to help work through and improve your situation.
Provider bias and inequality of care is a real fear. There has been a history of bias and unethical treatment in the medical field against African Americans. This has created a mistrust for some African Americans towards the mental health field because of discrimination, inadequate treatment and misdiagnoses the community has historically faced. This is why it is so important to have culturally competent service providers. “Culture—a person’s beliefs, norms, values and language—plays a key role in every aspect of our lives, including our mental health. Cultural competence is a doctor’s ability to recognize and understand the role culture (yours and the doctor’s) plays in treatment and to adapt to this reality to meet your needs.”
Examples of questions to ask your doctor and health care team to look for the cultural competence are listed below:
- Have you treated other African Americans?
- Have you received training in cultural competence or on African American mental health?
- How do you see our cultural backgrounds influencing our communication and my treatment?
- How do you plan to integrate my beliefs and practices in my treatment?
You can learn more by going to NAMI. Although there are many barriers to receiving care this does not negate the importance and necessity of getting treatment and taking care of your mental health.